Sunday, May 30, 2010

Froissart and Frigos and Friends

The BN research room was closed today, and my head is full of ideas that need to be sorted out, and so it was off to look at actual medieval art that I took myself this morning. Seeing the Froissart show at the Invalides seemed appropriate as well, with Memorial Day week-end back in the States in mind. I've always admired the idea of the Invalides, a complex that has grown and grown since 1670, but was designed to house disabled war veterans. (It's now big enough to house several museums, administrative offices, tombs, and Napoleon's ego, uh, tomb). It still functions as a home, center, and office for disabled veterans today, and when you eat in the good and inexpensive cafeteria (as I did today), chances are that you will be seated next to a retired serviceman in a wheelchair (as I was today). We talked a little bit about Memorial Day in America and I thanked him (I have no idea what war he served in). There are subjects before which I remain consistently bereft of answers or words, and the personal cost to someone of fighting in a war is one of those subjects. Smiles and raising our glasses of wine seemed good to do, though.

Jean Froissart (1330s - early 1400s) presents several very important questions: how is war to be written? how is it to be written about? how is it to be represented visually? what are we doing when we write about war and represent it visually? The war in question is the Hundred Years' War that tore at France and England from roughly 1337 to 1458 and (whoo-ha) is incredibly complex (but the Wikipedia article linked above is quite thorough - and hey, Brittany connection! Du Guesclin was a Breton!) and Froissart's Chroniques, a massive (massive!) 4 volume work sets down in writing all the years that Froissart lived through it. I'll want to read it all someday, but it really is enormous. It's no genre that we would recognize (it's not strict military history, it's not fiction, it's medieval war writing - and he defined the genre).

And so there I am bent over one of the four phenomenal huge Froissart manuscripts (well over 100 manuscripts of Froissart's Chroniques still exist, and these have got to be the most luxurious and awesome ones of the bunch), and a man comes up to me and asks me how I like the show. I tell him that I like it very much indeed and that I'm thinking through ways that I can incorporate Froissart into my "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" class and he just beams. Now you'll think I'm making the next part, so charmed has this Paris visit been, but the gentleman in question was none other than the curator of the show himself, a wonderful man named Paul Ainsworth, of the University of Sheffield. Can you imagine such a thing??? To get to talk to the curator, and he be this lovely Englishman with flawless French and he's here with his extended family in Paris for a quick holiday to see how the show is doing. !!! So we talked for quite a long time about the manuscript's audiences, the shifts in its visual programs, the challenges of working with monumental literary works and more. He and his team have put together an incredible web site that allows you to explore the manuscript by its pages or its miniatures, gives you historical and military background and even has stories for children. The Brits are doing such good work on this front (digitizing manuscripts and making them available for perusal, teaching, long-distance research). Here the BN completely lags behind. It has a site for its images, but you have to search by whatever name somebody gave that image, or by manuscript number, and it's just nothing like this. Peter (if I may call him thus!) said that it's because of the terrific emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity that this is happening in England. Well, it's certainly going to make it easier for me to teach Froissart, that's for sure!

And then (oh oui!) the day got even better. I crossed half of Paris in 15 minutes (that new line 14 really is swell.) and was down at Les Frigos to meet dear Amira and (little did I know) Kelly as well!!! That Meredith joined in as well was just too cool. All of these wonderful women were students at DePauw, although I had the privilege of teaching only Amira and Kelly. I can barely express the feeling of coming upon these hip, energetic, brilliant women (in the midst of this absolutely wild art scene), and being flooded with memories of so many conversation at DePauw. It's more than that: it's seeing them make fascinating lives for themselves, hearing their flawless French, meeting their friends, and picking up the conversation as though not a minute had passed, even though so much had changed. Are students friends? Yes and no - yes, I love to have them over to the house for dinner, but no, it's a professional relationship and there are all sorts of boundaries that are very important to maintain. Are alums friends? Yes and yes - yes, because I feel that I was with them when so many things opened up to them, because I can remember them their freshman year when everything was so new or their sophomore year when everything was so difficult, and yes, because we now have so much to talk about, so much in common it turns out.

So we started out by walking around Les Frigos. This place is pretty darn cool, starting out as it did as enormous refrigerators (entrepôt frigorifique ferroviaire) connected to the railways (all those Frenchfolk to feed!). It was built later than I had thought (in 1920), fell into decrepitude in the 1970s, was taken over by squatters in the 1980s, but now the city of Paris has bought it and has turned old freezing cold meat lockers into artist studios. Mac, be sure to show Oliver "who-ha! what is this stuff my parents call graffiti? I'm obsessed with it" Mackenzie the photo to the right, ok? - the place is absolutely covered in graffiti, top to bottom inside, and slowly the outside is filling up as well. The city (or the artists?) open up Les Frigos but one week-end a year, and the place was absolutely packed. Being a rebellious place (an ode to rebellion), it was filled with cigarette smoke (you're not supposed to smoke inside in France) which gave everything a kind of nice edginess. I hope that this place never goes away. There was, truth be told, quite a bit of bad, or just lame, art there. But that doesn't matter so much as the fact that there is this angry and safe haven for people to make art. Why do I say angry? Because that feeling of rebellion was palpable - in the graffiti, yes, but also in the history (the squatters, the fight with the city to not tear this place down), and of course in some of the art - and it's so important. There were also plenty of artists who were there for the beauty, who clearly wanted to display their process, not their anger. One studio in particular was a world unto itself: chock full of African portrait busts, books, music, it seemed like a place to think and think. And a washing machine indicated that the artist lived on site. 363 days of the year, artists live and work here in unheated, un-air conditioned spaces with no streaming parade of admiring publics (from all walks of life, another great thing). As much as there's a public and galleries and groups, an artist's life often seem very lonely. You and your ideas and a blank canvas (lots and lots of painting - Kingsley was right, painting isn't dead!), and no knowledge as to whether or not they will resonate, or even come close to approximating what you need them to express. Lonely. And yet, ideas do resonate, people pick up on them, and are moved by them, and, yes, for that one strong moment of potential, the world is a better place.

But there they are and they persevere and so did we, through 4 huge floors of dozens studios, carrying on 8 conversations at once, as we tried to catch up over the past 3 years. As their admirer, companion, and, for a brief honored moment their chaperone, of the life examined, I can look upon these women with great, beaming pride at their accomplishments, remembering and reminiscing about their time at DePauw. :-) Walking and talking turned into a bus ride to Amira and her (yes, Breton!) boyfriend, Tristan (who, true to his medieval namesake, is noble of thought and chivalrous of deed)'s neighborhood, which turned into coffee, and then a fantastic dinner at Bistro Chantefable. I had, almost inevitably and oh so gladly, the duck.

We sat at the very table that you see in the foreground here, and spoke of immigration and carrot cakes, of oil spills and the politics of nostalgia, of school lunches and Mother's Days, of camping (with or without making your own fire?) and how people who are asked to remember a complex number will tend to choose chocolate over fruit, whereas people who are asked to remember a simple number will more likely choose fruit (I am still pondering that one) (is this why I want chocolate now?). I can't quite believe that Amira and Kelly graduated as many years ago as they did. And I'm beyond impressed with what they've accomplished in that time. What they are doing (to borrow an expression I learned Henry IV used) is no small beer: I was in Paris as a student, which is a very safe and scripted life when you think of its long and cherished tradition. Here are Amira and Kelly writing their own scripts every day, working in Paris, at oft difficult, other times very satisfying jobs. Taking those first steps, making that first phone call, clambering over that first bureaucratic hurdle, that took a lot of courage and you, dear women, have all my admiration. As I was saying to Kelly on the Metro right before we said good-bye, you may have anxieties now about the immediate future but there'll be no regrets later thinking of this glorious past.

The sculptural presentation of the brochette d'agneau alone would make that statement true. But it's also the companionship, the triumphs, that feeling of well-being that really does happen every once in a while, and putting into practices your convictions of what you find worthwhile. You guys certainly make it all worth it for me.

Vive le theatrrrrre!

Ever since my mom and I went to the theater to see that Molière play, I have to admit that I've been eager to see another piece of French acting. What? Me? Who fears the breaking down of the 4th wall more than anything? Et oui. And so this morning at breakfast, I looked earnestly in the Pariscope and of course was stunned and pleasantly overwhelmed at the incredible choices to choose from. That's the critical cultural moment for me: can a city sustain live shows? If it can, then it's a major. (If not - sigh). OK - so would it be Ionesco's "La Cantatrice Chauve"? (the "Bald Soprano"? (I could see it at the theater just down the street where it's been playing every night since 1957 - every night!), or would it be "Le Donneur de Bain" (The Bath Merchant, I guess is how'd I'd translate it) set in 1848 Paris when the poor take their baths from a traveling salesman with a tub who'll clean you and listen to your worries. And then, this little ad in the sidebar of the Pariscope caught my eye: "007 meets Monty Python" - oui? My two favorite genres together at last? Little did I know. The reviewers promised: "The audience crumbles in laughter" (I'm transliterating here), "Mission of laughter accomplished!" "It beats the records for laughs per minute" "It's hilarious!" "Rush there!" and then, a new word I've never heard: "Elle vrombit de douleur à force d'être dilatée." (the word is getting translated as "roar" but I'm still having a bit of trouble: the piece "roars in pin from being so expansive" - I think I get it. But what the heck? It appears medieval (Gothic font on the ad, and the Monty Python comparison) and I'm in Paris, France so let's go to the theater already! Screwball comedy, here I come.

Nonetheless, I did a little hemming and hawing and worked until way past lunchtime and then, after a great little salad at the café in that one tower of the BN, I made the call for a ticket. It was sold out, oversold, but I could sit on a stool for 12euros. Done! So I worked really hard all afternoon and have come away with more knowledge, more images to work with, and more determination to write this book. I won't go into why because I'm eager to tell you about the play, but if I can go to a play by myself in Paris, France, I can jolly well write a book. The statement is non-sensical except that you have to do a certain amount of girding of your loins for both.

By the end (7:30 p.m.) of the day, I was tired and thinking sheepishly of take-out and TV. But the cheap Scotswoman in me knew I'd already paid for the ticket- and I also know that a warm meal makes a skittish woman strong, so I stopped in for a red pepper and goat cheese soup and a slice of quiche with salmon and zucchini (yes, you can do that in Paris, France now - very American!) And then Paris started doing that thing where it just smiles and smiles upon thee. I had a straight Metro shot from where I was at the BN to where I needed to be at the Théâtre Michel. The restaurant with that scrumptious dinner was right there near the Metro stop. The wind and rain ushered my into the most wonderful, really really crowded little theater ever. Fire codes? Ha ha ha! We laugh at them. Like, really laugh at them. It was absolutely packed (oversold out!) and in fact I was glad I was on stool because I had my huge BN backpack with me (computer and all - what style! what glamour!). Basically, once the house is full, they put stools up behind the last row (actually they're all these booths - very 19th century!) and we could see very well (could even rest our elbows on the backs of the booths).

And then the play started. And here, my friends, I defer to your judgment as to whether The Divine has a sense of humor, or this was just a wild, wild, wild coincidence. But the one play in Paris, France (of the dozens and dozens I had to choose from) is about... François Ier's alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you with me on the "C'est incroyable!?!?!?" factor!!! Can you believe it??? My obsession for the past six months is the driving narrative for a piece of (very, very funny) comedic theater. Either my entire project is a joke (well, yes!), or, hey baby, I just might have my finger on the beating pulse of French popular culture! (That and 3euros will get me a cup of coffee).

I mean "really!" and "wow!" - I'm still reeling (and will continue to reel, and chuckle and laugh for quite a while I do believe). François Ier seeks an alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent in order to corner Charles V (lousy emperor). All of his best agents that he's sent to Suleiman have returned in teeny tiny boxes, compliment of said emperor. So now, François wants to send a total "nul" (loser) guy, thinking that, logically, if the best agents are failing, the worst agent will succeed. It's all hilarious from then on: plays on words, sex jokes, anachronisms, mentions of popular culture. The Guignols had trained me well, but I'm sure that I still missed half of the popular culture stuff. And at the end of it all, tongue in cheek, but nonetheless there it was: a call for peace and love, for an "entente cordiale" between Christian and Muslim. (Not really a call, just a statement that hey, it almost happened!).

And now - Breton pop quiz!

From the image below, pick out the Breton guy (and try to avoid looking at the names)! Ready? Get set? Go!

Did you guess the guy in the bottom left? Erwan Creignou? You are correct! The thing is, I knew it almost from the minute he stepped on stage. And then, when I saw him do a biniou imitation, I totally knew! And if you look at the theater company's web site, you'll see that he's the only who mentions where he's from: go, Bretagne! There were only five actors (who played over 30 roles all told!), so this picture is a bit misleading. Sebastian Azzopardi played François Ier first (and lots and lots of roles after) - he's also one of the two writers of the piece. I wonder how common this is in Paris theater (or theater in general) that the playwright also direct and act in the piece? I always think of playwrights as smoking and having troubled lives off to the side (too much Eugene O'Neil growing up?) - not these guys! Their timing was astounding, they physical humor really really funny, and all of the language games are, of course, a blast. Can't remember a single one right now, but I'm still chuckling.

And then, as though to really give me a kiss good night, Paris proffered forth a night bus that whisked me past Opera, ran along the Seine for a good long, glittery while, let me see the Eiffel Tower full-on when we crossed the river, and deposited it me not 200 feet from my hotel. Bliss!

Well, mes amis, many good things are in the air (smiley face!) and tomorrow I'm going to go see that Froissart show (manuscripts of the Hundred Years War at the Invalides - huzzah!) and then meeting an alum of ours at Les Frigos (enormous refrigerated boxcars that had been used by the railroads and which have now been turned into art galleries - they're only open two days a year and tomorrow is one of those days). Vive Paris!

Friday, May 28, 2010

We'll Always Have Paris

Just returned from a lovely, boisterous, really, really good meal at Polidor with Steve and Gina. The website video describes the décor as "authentique et émouvant" (authentic and moving) - and you know what? They're right! The place has been there on these terms since 1845 - it's a pilgrimage site. And the Bavarois au Cassis is out of sight! Thanks, Steve and Gina - it was scrumptious at every bite! It was also fun to write Paris out on the paper tablecloth as we plotted a million different things that Paris has to offer. I myself am seriously considering playing hooky from the BN on Sunday: there are about 5 exhibits that I want to go see, and the research library is closed (only the reading room would be open, and while, no, I can't read on my own time, I'm in Paris, France and there are at least 5 shows I want to see!)

Plus (significant pause) I had a major professional triumph today. Major. Unprecedented. In the tiny, neurotic world of academics who study at the BN every once in a while, the notice "Reserve" strikes fear in every heart. (I'm not even going to address doing research at the Manuscripts Room, which is as ego-crushing an experience as anyone could ever get. Crushing). For Reserve means you have to go through yet another set of Get Smart doorways, get approved to go up the elevator, get buzzed into a room, and then (tremulously) ask to see, oh I don't know, the 1517 French translation edition of Bernhard von Breydenbach's 1484 work Sanctae Peregrinationes which describe the German canon's travels to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The answer (always) is a withering "We have it in microfiche, you may not see the original." Now this doesn't mean much to you if you're French, you accept it humbly. But if you're American, and you've ever studied in a University library's Rare Books room where they just about give you a massage and a cuppa tea when you ask to look at a manuscript, you just kinda of start to weep inside. What's it all for? Did these manuscripts come here to die alone? Of course, I know I'm wrong, I know that manuscripts die if they're over-handled, but still, it breaks my heart, because these works really truly were made to live and breathe with readers. Naive American, I know.

However, today I was ready. "Ah," says I, "Then perhaps the 1522 edition is not on microfiche and I can consult it." Touché, pussy cat! But instead I got "Why do you want to look at it so badly in any case?" Usually at this point, I cave, give up, and take the microfiche with slumped shoulders and trembling lip. But today, I said "Because I'm an art historian!" I really did! And guess what? IT WORKED! I was scolded, of course ("You should have said so from the start") but I didn't care - I was actually going to get to look at 1522 book within one hour of asking for it. (I've looked at manuscripts before, but only after 5 days of slogging through enough microfilm to really make you wonder what it's all for). So there I sat, with my 1522 edition of Breydenbach and I read it pretty much all day long. Lunch hour came and went, and I couldn't get away: it was all too crazy and beautiful. The French edition is awesome because they added all sorts of new chapters about the "Turks and the Sarracens" and I'm trying to figure out the slippage here between different Islams in this period. The two are lumped together in a whole new way after the Turks take over Jerusalem in 1517 (and Jerusalem would remain part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918!) and I'm trying to gauge the characterization of the Turks that François and Louise would have been experiencing.

The most astounding thing by far that I found in this compendium of sources old and new about Islam in the 16th century is a fictional letter from the Sultan Mehmed II asking Pope Nicolas to stop inciting people to crusade, especially the Venetians. (!) (it's probably an anti-Venitian tract more than anything else, but the terms are fascinating). The logic, says "Mehmed" is that the Turks are, after all, descended from the Trojans (through classic humanist etymology), as are all Italians, and so why fight? Plus, the Turks believe Jesus was a prophet. Plus, they just want to claim what is theirs (Europe) through their Trojan heritage. !!! Lots and lots of doublespeak. I also found this really touching table of words, basically an early survivor's travel vocabulary list (how to say "sick" or "beautiful" in Turkish - and numbers 1-30). This book was as much a travel account as a pilgrim's guide, and as such, asks very different things simultaneously of the reader. On the enormous fold-out map of Jerusalem, sites marked with two crosses (you are told) are worth a plenary indulgence (big deal), sites marked with one grant you a quarateine (40 days off in Purgatory). Reading that involves you with the image a great deal more. There was so much more (images, texts) but it's late and we should all move on, yes? Sorry for the petulant blow-by-blow of my wee triumph - but man oh man did it feel good (do you think it was the mention of the 1522 edition that did it, or the fact that I'm an art historian? I'll never know!).

For now, to bed, then back to the BN tomorrow for a last long haul. Then to dream of an evening (there's a Georgian (ex-Soviet Republic Georgia) movie playing and how often do you get to see those?) and then to see as much art and life as possible in Paris, France on Sunday!

Brittany in Paris

It's getting harder to leave Brittany without taking a little something form it with me, so for the trip to Paris I started another novel from the many terrific ones at the house (yes, this means I finished Careless in Red, and, in the process, discovered that Steve and Gina watch the Inspector Lynley BBC series - yea!). This one is entitled Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes, and my cover is even racier (it shows a buxom Breton peasant lass leaning over a wounded guy in peasany clothing - Vive la Résistance!). In finding the image, I was startled to discover the novel was first published in 1942 (!) describing events in 1940. It was also made into a movie in 1943, directed by Jack Conway. Something to add to our "Remember Brittany" Netflix cue, Mac!

Not to put on our Netflix cue because (sigh) a good medieval movie is hard to find is the latest Robin Hoof, which I took in tonight after a great day at the Bibliothèque Nationale (serious medieval, then not-so-serious medieval). I'm stunned to think of that movie showing at Cannes (which is in FRANCE!) because so much of the movie is unthinkingly anti-French. The French are vilified and ridiculed in these really kind of dumb ways (Friar Tuck gets a bunch of French soldiers drunk and then throws two beehives in the their room and locks them in - really?). The usual anachronisms in which medieval movies are a platform to display proto-democracy movements (this is much (much much much) more common in medieval movies than you'd think), I can get over (although they do sound awfully Tea Partyish, as one critic said). But it was watching Ridley Scott, who is such a brilliant director, and Brian Hegeland, to whom I will be eternally grateful (yes, grateful!) for Knight's Tale - it was watching those wonderful guys not have any fun with this that was harder. Robin Hood is a trickster, a scamp, a cad you can't help but root for. He speaks treason fluently, for goodness sake (this, from Errol Flynn). In this movie, he is just too heroic. This is what is always hard about medieval movies: heroicism thrust upon an age in which Innocent III's The Vileness of the Human Condition was a best-seller. That's not to say that there were no heroes in the Middle Ages - there were plenty. But they're conditional, flawed, complex - that's why I love teaching them. Lancelot? ponder that poor scoundrel for a bit! And then, how dare I complain about this, but: too many fantastic battle scenes that kind of go nowhere emotionally. (Much better would have been Robin Hood on Crusade with Richard the Lionhearted instead of coming back from it). BUT, there was a beautiful Brittany moment, for King Richard's retinue rode out of France and to England through the Forrest of.... Broceliande!

Let's talk about the BN (Bibliothèque Nationale) for two seconds. And then I have some news from home from Mac about the kiddies and Steve and Gina.

Ta-daaaa! Behold the fort of knowledge! What a project the BN is - this, to me, not the Pyramid at the Louvre, is where Mitterand is really leaving his mark. There are two levels, one of reading rooms and exhibition spaces, and, down below, one for researchers. The happy part is that the reading rooms upstairs were all full - that's such a beautiful thing! Being a researcher is still a special little thing: you have your interview in which you talk about your research and you show them your University letterhead letter (very important) and they decide whether or to let you in (I still get scared although I've never been turned away). And then you get your magic card, and then this incredible "Get Smart" sequence starts and after 1 turnstile, 2 sets of enormous doors, 2 separate escalators, and another turnstile (I'm bringing my camera next time), you're in! And what a place: gorgeous furniture, every detail seen to (I always think of Mitterand looking at carpet samples at this point). One small glitch: the guys who fetch the books (les magasiniers) are on strike. OH NO! But it's only the literature magasiniers that are one strike (whew! sorry lit students!). Good Lord, France, but I love you. I wish that I could swiftly and elegantly describe this crazy country, this wonderful place, this repository of hope and style. But I can only tell you that while at the BN I simultaneously laughed at the signs posted everywhere telling you that when it's raining (as it was today) all walking surfaces are very slippery (and you know how frail scholars are!), and then just as quickly, once I was seated and looking at a book, I was flooded with the joy of this place, and a study day gloriously stretching until 8 p.m. and isn't it fantastic what happened in France? Isn't it amazing to discover (as it was today) that François Ier had a manuscript made for him before he became king entitled "Letters of the Ottoman Turck Mahometes" (it's at the Manuscripts building which, though lovely, is run by really surly people who really really hate that anybody wants to look at a manuscript ever. Anytime. Ugh) - but no matter! I'll be going there next research gig.

I did briefly daydream of those dissertation research days when we would go "coast to coast" (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and just completely lose ourselves in research (easy to do so in the old BN reading room, eh? Wow, what a beautiful place that was!) - follow ideas to their original manuscript, bump between sources, write copiously. Sigh. I have to be much more efficient now. My dear Donna has a personal fantasy of running freely in the stacks of the BN - that's what I'll daydream about next time. Tomorrow morning I'll be looking at the 1517 French edition of a German 1484 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land text, one which has been liberally edited and added on to to include a call for Crusade, a condemnation of the Ottoman take-over of Jerusalem, and much, much more!

News from the home front is good: Iris is sorry that Steve and Gina won't be picking them up from school, since they're leaving Josselin at 3 p.m. tomorrow - but hey, at least she loves school again! I miss those babies. I can't believe we're all going to be here for a week at the end of July! Little Americans in Paris. On that happy note, goodnight all!

P.S. I have much more to get down: Pretty Big Insight on the primacy of self vs. the primacy of state, and also some pondering as to whether or not humans have always had bureaucracy? Is Bureaucracy a pitfall of the human condition, or of writing (which is pretty crucial to the human condition)? To ponder!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Out in Town with Steve and Gina

It's somehow late again, and I'm leaving for a research stint in Paris in the morning, so here are the briefest remarks on the loveliest of days.

We took a wonderful walk in the Bois d'Amour this morning. Though from afar, you can see Iris's new French clothes (we brought no spring clothes knowing those dang kids would just keep on growing like they've been). Très fashionable, yes? She looks like a petite movie star, non?

Eleanor has decided to ride on Mac's shoulders side-saddle, so that she can better twiddle his ear. With the sunglasses and the cap, we're talking total movie star here. In the Bois d'Amour.

Mmmmm, escargot crêpe at the fantastic Crêperie de la Marine (I think that you can see one lone escargot remaining, for Oliver ate them all!

Lovely Gina and Oliver who dotes on her and (in the logic of an almost-8 year old) thus talks to her non-stop. :-)

The kids love coming here - it's the only restaurant in town that has books for kids and these are now treasured favorites.

Making a new friend down by the Lists. (Lots and lots of people down there now - campers, boats, picnickers - the works.)

Whenever Uncle Steve and Aunt Gina are around, there is tons of fun to be had. This was Gina's first Kouig Amman and she (and baby!) loved it. (So many reasons to love Gina). Uncle Steve wanted a piece of the action, but the bites he takes are Gargantuan, and Gina knows this. So we staged a little tableaux vivant of the fear and desire involved when there's only one Kouig Amman to go around. Oliver's most excellent "anxious face" is totally staged - hee hee. Life is delicious!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Big News for a Little Planet

The girls were eager to go this morning. Despite threat of rain, they donned (then doffed) their Littlest Pet Shop (shudder) hats and gleefully greeted the day. I'm going to have to get over the Littlest Pet Shop thing - the girls are happy, thrilled, love their hats, end of story. So here they are, mid-doff and oh so happy. But it wasn't just the hats that made them happy, it was the fact that Uncle Steve (my brother) and Aunt Gina (his fantastic wife) were stopping over with us for a couple of days on their way to their honeymoon in Paris, France!

The spring in everyone's step on the way to school got us all there a bit early, and so we talked about how we were going to welcome Steve and Gina to our house: pictures, flowers, songs...

Mac and I went grocery shopping for feasts and were duly impressed by the gigantic crabs all wrapped up and ready to go (the fresh-from-the-ocean seafood wasn't there today: back-log due to Pentecost on Monday - sigh!). As impressive as the big guy was, we went for a lovely cut of cabillaud (cod) instead - with a sprinkle of coriander, and couscous with lentils, and a salad on the side, we hopped it would feed and soothe the jet-lagged duo.

Steve and Gina are incredible. As Oliver said to Gina tonight at dinner: "You're not just the woman madly in love with my uncle, you're part of the family now." :-) What this actually meant was that Gina could now be subjected to Oliver's non-sequitur jokes, but she took that in good stride. I've always loved my brother for his honesty, good will and (hmm, must run in the family somehow) goofiness, and now to love Gina for her great and good humor, courage, and smarts is just so cool. Their wedding in December was so much fun (how could it not be, initiated as it was with bagpipes and danced to with "Brick House"?) and life moves fast, because below you see Iris confirming that...

Gina is pregnant!!!! Iris's "baby-ray" sees all!!! The doctor is _in_! She had extra oxygen for Gina, and a form to be filled out for the name. At this rate, the baby will beat Steve and Gina to their one-year anniversary. Go, baby, go! And know that we are here, and love you already, and that there will be much Clamor and Joy when you come, and that you've already made so many people so happy. A friend once described the well-being that comes from knowing that two really great people are going to have a baby - this is that well-being.

So out to a terrace we went (Gina's the gorgeous one, Steve looks shocked at who knows what) and enjoyed treats and sunshine. Good thing, too, as it's thundering and raining as I write. We eased into the evening knowing we were going to beat the jetlag, knowing that Baby was busy Becoming, knowing that dinner together (together!) was soon, and so, really, there was just one thing to do...


Monday, May 24, 2010

Giant Elephant Ride! (Nantes redux)

Saturday, May 22, 2010 - Medieval Nantes
What a difference 3 months make! The last time we went to Nantes and loved it, it was very cold indeed and a terrible wind was whipping everything into what turned out to be one of the worst flood disasters of the region. But we had immediately loved the dynamics of the city, this feeling that there were new and cool ideas around every corner, and we had vowed to come back when the weather was nicer and the elephant would be allowed out for a walk. Turned out to be the warmest week-end of the year thus far, the end of the Bretagne Festival focused around St. Ives (think St. Patrick's Day for the Irish abroad), and Pentecost week-end (day off Monday for everyone!), and you have the frame for our wonderful 30 hours in this fantastic city. As we boarded our little Train Touristique (always), a parade culminated in the huge open square in front of the Cathedral - you're seeing two Breton flags, a Nantes flag, and I don't know who the dragon flag signifies (dramatic, though!).

Possibly my favorite thing about the warmer weather is the re-appearance of... EuroMac! With the exception of the sunglasses and the t-shirt it's all Euro all the time. He's hip, he's comfortable, he's EuroMac! What's amazing about my beloved from Chicago is that he looks so much more like the other EuroDads than I could ever look like the EuroMoms. Eleanor's pink unicorn backpack notwithstanding. Look for more pictures of EuroMac on his travels this summer!

Oliver was feeling a bit cranky (mostly due to hot weather) and so we asked him to take the lead in finding our restaurant for dinner. That did the trick, and we wandered around the Buffay neighborhood of medieval Nantes and he picked a crêperie. I'll freely confess to feverntly hoping he'd pick one of the many beautiful Thai, Moroccan, or Vietnamese places we passed (sigh), but it was crêpes instead. My little hard-core Breton guy! But this spot was perfect - a street ending in the Sainte-Croix church behind me...

... and another street giving out onto a corner of Place du Bouffay, where a terrific trio (accordion, singer, spoons/drummer) sang throughout our dinner. Please note Oliver's crêpe of salmon with crême fraiche and ciboulette (chives) - yum! An homage to the crêpes that dear Carrie Klaus made for us right before we left for Brittany. The cider was artisanal - which meant that we thoroughly enjoyed dinner, watched the flow of humanity and... to wonder about what this plaque on the building directly across from us could possible mean. The Latin is cryptic enough: "expecto donec veniat" I would think would mean "I wait until he/she/it comes" - but what is coming? and does he/she/it have to do with a figure who might be Hermes (why only one winged foot?) holding a turtle (wasn't it Apollo who made the first lyre out of a turtle shell?). A quick check on the web just now I think is leading me astray: the phrase "expecto donec veniat" appears in a New Advent page of Job and forms part of the larger sentence "14 Shall man that is dead, do you think, live again? All the days in which I am now in warfare, I expect until my change come." (Job 14:14 - and no, I don't know what that means, either). But really, the turtle shell and winged foot signifies antiquity, no? And why the nonchalant pose? This little terracotta panel was the subject of much discussion over dinner. My favorite interpretation was Iris's, who suggested that the "bored man" was waiting for someone to bring him the plate of spaghetti in the triangle above his head. Why not? Classicists of the world (well, of my world) - any suggestions?

Sunday, May 23, 2010 - Nineteenth-Century Nantes
The only way to do justice to The Giant Elephant of the Machines de l'Île is to go to Nantes. Seriously - go to Nantes. The energy of this city is unlike any other. No it's not Paris, but Paris did its major intervention in the 19th century. Nantes is doing it right now, and it's so exciting to be there for it. Shipyards that had been in use from 1840 to 1987 are now the site of the Machines de l'Île, of parks, of restaurants. On the other side of the river, an enormous parcel of land has been cleared for what will be the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Nantes having made a good deal of its wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries from the slave trade). The first stone was laid down on May 10 of this year, and should be done sometime next year. (Wow! It's worth looking at the pictures of the projected site and memorial - and then having a conversation with Mac about this - his work with memorials becomes more fascinating all the time! The promenade marked by 2000 plaques each signifying a slave ship that left from Nantes bound for Africa is a pretty incredible idea - as is the 90m walk underground - there's much to talk about here, perhaps even in relation to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin - even as those human tragedies stand in stark isolation within human history - and the problem of vergangenheitsbewältigung (yes, that's German for "mastery of the past" but implying an inability to fully do so). Meanwhile, there are festivals, and concerts, and contests, and events (one involving having people read books out loud for a two-day period!), and really cool exhibits. Ok, wait - we haven't even entered the portico of the Giant Elephant (enormous metaphor for all that is daring and cool and Nantes) and we've been on several tangents already. Thus is the draw, the pull, the power, the dynamism of this city. Go to Nantes!

So the portico above (and here's we're already three stories up) is fantastic in its gloried Orientalism, and you can quickly imagine yourself about to ride with a Mughal Emperor atop his prized elephant as he surveys another swath of recently conquered India. Good thing this elephant wasn't enraged. The anticipation of stepping on was incredible - and then we noticed this Arabic writing on the surrounding banister. An homage to the Mughal empire itself? Faux Arabic (how would I know?)? Eternal phrases of Islam? Oliver has volunteered the service's of our dear friend's son, who is taking currently Arabic language classes - I hope to revisit this incredible detail.

We set out, to great machine sounds, and even a trumpeting yell from the elephant and moved surprisingly smoothly (considering we were on a good-sized two-tier tower on an elephant). The statistics on the Elephant are pretty stupendous - but the big one for me is that it's 12 meters, or 39 feet (!!!), high. Eleanor was hanging on pretty tightly in this picture, but with glee, too, at seeing all the people below. It's so cool: when the Elephant leaves the shipyard hangar, there's this great commotion, and before you know it, people gather 'round below, and there's this crowd following the Elephant the entire time.

Every detail is beautifully carved and the kids quickly found their favorite "gargoyle" animals on the sides of the main tower room. They didn't spend as much time on the upper deck of the tower - but you could move easily between the two. One of the most intriguing things about the Elephant is that everything is visible: the machinery, the stroke of the wood chisel, the gears, the ropes. It's a machine that you can actually decode with your eyes. It's like reading through one of Jules Verne's machines. And of course, Nantes' native son cannot be too far from the imaginings of the Machines de l'Île.

See what I mean about the visibility? This, I believe, looks through the head to the face of the Elephant. The animal opens its eyes, moves its trunks, sprays water - there are parts of the machinery that look like pipe organs!

Here's Eleanor pulling a lever that made the tail of the Elephant wag back and forth - yea Eleanor!

The ride was thrilling for all of its 45 minutes, and we gathered on the spiral staircase between the tiers of the tower to say goodbye. Eleanor was really, really sad to go, and you can see her stifling back tears, brave soul, by sucking her thumb. I totally get it: who would want to leave this complete world made of wood and movement, noise and steel in which you went like you'd never gone before?

But then, we found ourselves following the Elephant on its journey back from where it had dropped us off (along the row of old shipyards), and all was well. And can I point out that that trunk shoots our water? Lots and lots of it!

This might be my favorite photograph from the Elephant adventure - it also starts to give you a sense of scale (big Elephant foot, tiny girl).

So where do you go after such a ride and a great lunch at the café of the Elephant? Why across the bridge, on public transport, and up the hill to the Butte Sainte Anne to the Jules Verne Museum of course! The little boy (in bronze) seated on the bench is Jules Verne already imagining Captain Nemo (whom you see in the foreground sextant in hand). Notice Eleanor is unmoved by all this (unlike Mac), and currently taking a nap.

The Jules Verne Museum is, in a word, way cool. Lots of original editions, lots of maps charting all of his characters' travels, and (Mac and Oliver's favorites) lots and lots of maquettes (models). Here is Oliver in front of the Nautilus - Mac especially liked that the interiors of these looked like the interiors of comfortable (think a lot of burgundy velvet) 19th-century bourgeois homes - the Nautilus even came complete with an organ (for Captain Nemo to play alone, late in the night, of course)!!!

While Eleanor continued to take what turned out to be an enormous nap, the rest of us played a great board game based on Captain Nemo's travels - each square you land on is another one of his adventures, which can either move you forward or set you back. It was fast-paced fun, and of course, made us want to start reading through these books with the kids. Prolific hardly begins to acknowledge the amount of writing that Verne did (at one point he'd signed a contract to produce 2 volumes of year for the next 20 years!).

One of the leit motifs of the trip was Iris's obsession with this map, which showed you, in simplified terms, how to get from medieval Nantes out here to the Machines de l'îles, the Elephant and even the Jules Verne museum. She whipped that thing out every time we left a place to go to another destination (I cannot wait to see her in Paris, France!). Here you see Oliver and Eleanor looking a bit, um, distracted, as she explains the trajectory we'll need to take to get to....

... the incredible Jardin des Plantes!!! It was lush, it was filled with people walking slowly, it had a kid playspace!!! Even though the sun was really beating down by now, there was plenty of shade and the kids played and played. We had been sorely tempted by the renowned Musée des Beaux Arts (strong collection, cool traveling exhibits), but there was no way to begrudge the kids a chance to run around and play outside. Mac and I sat on a bench (like parents do!) and wished we'd brought novels - dream come true! But we had to do plenty of consultation for moves on the see saw, and castles being built, and more. I love being surrounded by the voices of others chatting, the words inaudible, but the conversations coming and going.

Turtles get to do just that pretty much all day, and probably have been since the 19th century. Here they are sunning themselves next to astounding flowering bushes, doing an excellent job of ignoring the ducks nearby. The thing is, the 19th century was pretty spectacular for Nantes (I'm thinking of Paris's Grand 19th Century) - but maybe it ended (even as late as 1987) more brutally (economically speaking) for Nantes. Well, this park is alive and filled with people, and I don't think it was just because it was Pentecost week-end. Nantes thrives, Nantes explores. Go to Nantes. And then, it was time for us to go - two hours in the car and home in time for omelettes for dinner. And dreams of rides on Giant Elephants, journeys on the Nautilus, and steering a great seesaw.

Monday, May 24 - Back to Josselin
Our own beautiful Bois d'Amour have much to offer in the way of promenades (although the town's actual Promenade, which culminates in the awesome war memorial crowned by the Gallic Rooster, has been turned into this weird space for a kind of endless (and thus kind of grinding) fair, complete with flashing lights and a carousel - I'm sounding completely humorless here, but I guess that we had looked forward to playing beneath the lush canopy of the Promenade's trees more than we realized. So off to the Bois d'Amour we went.). We walked this alley so many times in winter, I don't think that I'll ever get tired of seeing how it has filled out now. Brittany's numerous shades of green have just multiplied a hundred fold.

It was still good and hot, so ice cream was called for, and here you see the girls making their way down Olivier de Clisson street. They're wearing their new sun hats, which are actually Littlest Pet Shop baseball caps - Littlest Pet Shop is fairly abhorrent, and of course I wanted them to get something Breizh, but I also know that if I want them to wear their sunhats without protest every day (and I do, I do), I'd better go with the flow on this one. Choose your fashion battles, there will be many I hear. Oliver chose one with a dragon on it - medieval!

Since tomorrow is a school day (but then Wednesday is Wednesday, and Thursday Eleanor's teacher is on strike) it was Lasagna Night! The Cute Butcher had been away on May 8, and, with the Ascension holiday hadn't had time to make lasagna, so this was our first in several weeks. You can see that Oliver relished literally every last bite!

As did Iris (whom I love here, contemplating whether or not to go for it and lick the plate like Oliver did. She did) while Eleanor plays the punkette. How does she even know to screw up her little face like that? They are watching more and more French television, and between that and their little conversations at school, we are hearing some very fun phrases. This one (from Barbouille talking to some animal or another) "Donnes moi ça, sale bête!" (Give me that, filthy beast!) almost caused me to splurt my wine. We had to do some explaining about cartoons vs. life. It became clear that while Eleanor didn't know the exact meaning of the phrase (she agreed that she would never want to call anybody "except Oliver and Iris sometimes" (!!!) a filthy beast), she had absolutely understood its gist. Ah, language acquisition. But we're pretty partial to "Laisses moi faire!" (Let me do it!)

So you might have noticed there was no cheese picture, despite our actually having been to the market before taking off for Nantes on Saturday. Sigh. Two more weeks to go. But we had to do fancy desserts before school night. So there's a phenomenal Tarte au Citron at about 11 a.m. on the clock face (who knew a meringue could be so creamy? such a perfect complement to the tanginess of the lemon?); then, the beautiful piece called a Frasier, in honor of its sweet, smooth strawberry flavor; and then an apple tart with lots of cinnamon and maybe even a little caramel. I don't know what prompted me to do this (years of therapy await the kids), but I asked them to describe the desserts using any words but food words - Oliver said that the lemon tart was like lying down on a pillow in the sun (delicious! oh, no, wait - that's a food word!), and Iris said that the Fraisier was like floating down a river because the flavor kept going and going (wow!). Eleanor just ate, which was its own poetry (concrete poetry?). Good night!